A number of studies have found that exercise can prevent anxiety disorders from beginning in the first place. In a study at the University of Illinois, researchers found that regular exercisers were at a 25% reduced risk of developing anxiety and depressive disorders over a five-year period. 

In turns out that chemicals released in the brain during exercise can help improve the ability to focus and deal with stressful situations, thereby lessening the risk of anxiety and depression. Reducing stress is one of the primary ways in which exercise helps and prevents anxiety. 

Physical exercise moderates stress by increasing the production of stress-reducing neurotransmitters. Brain imaging has given insights into brain metabolism and why exercise is an important part of treating anxiety and other neuropsychiatric disorders linked with deficiencies in neurotransmitters. 

In 2016, researchers from UC Davis Health System found that intense exercise increases levels of two common neurotransmitters; glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA. Both glutamate and GABA are responsible for chemical messaging within the brain. Anxiety disorders have been linked to depleted glutamate and GABA, which return to normal when mental health is restored. Exercise activates the metabolic pathway that replenishes these neurotransmitters. 

Regular exercise also decreases the buildup of cortisol. A German study of cancer patients hospitalized for chemotherapy revealed that those who exercised for 30 minutes daily had significant improvement in several measures of psychological distress and anxiety as compared to control group who didn’t exercise. This included a reduction in cortisol. 

Exercise directly inhibits the stress response, particularly if the exercise is moderate to vigorous. Working out is one of the most effective ways to relieve stress and getting into better physical shape makes you feel better both mentally and physically. 

Exercise can help with the stress associated with aging as well. A study in Thailand reported that postmenopausal women who completed a 12 week aerobic exercise program of 40 to 50 minutes twice a week had improved scores when tested for psychological stress. 

In an Australian study of 60 male university undergraduate students, 10 weeks of aerobic exercise resulted in healthier responses to acute mental stress compared with other students who did no exercise. Other research has demonstrated that regular exercisers have lower perceived stress as well as better resistance to stress. A study of 48 women 25 to 40 years old found that a single session of aerobic exercise reduced the stress levels after a stressful event. 

Another way in which exercise reduces anxiety is by increasing endorphins and endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids decrease anxiety and induce a state of contentment. These brain chemicals also increase dopamine in the brain’s reward system, which fuels feelings of optimism and calms the mind. Endocannabinoids amplify the pleasure we derive from being around others, which makes exercise an excellent way to build and strengthen relationships. 

There are a number of types of exercise that research has found helpful in relieving anxiety. In addition to aerobic activities, other forms of exercise that are supportive include resistance training, dancing and outdoor activities like gardening.

Randi Fredricks, Ph.D.


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